All about the absurdist next generation of the NPC, and the political reputation that precedes it

If you got called an NPC five years ago, it was likely in regard to your politics. What began in the gaming realm—an acronym for “non-playable character,” a soulless, scripted, computer-controlled avatar, existent solely to advance a main plot—turned into an insult on 4chan and Reddit, referring to anti-Trump liberals, allegedly unable to think for themselves. Think sheeple or brainwashed: anyone under that mask-wearing, pronoun-respecting, “snowflake” umbrella, mocked for being “motivated by social acceptance rather than by logic and critical thinking.”

During that time, NPC bots flooded Twitter—an orchestrated effort from inhabitants of those niche-er sites—impersonating liberal activists. They’d post dramatized versions of the bleeding-heart arguments driving conservatives up the wall, as well as misinformation pertaining to the upcoming midterms. “Get out and vote November 7th!” @NPC_Brennan proclaimed (the election was to be the day prior), throwing in hashtags #AbolishICE and #Abolish 2A. “Then we will take their guns!!”

A lot of the accounts were suspended, the Times reported in October of 2018. In the same explainer, they defended their decision to cover the NPC uprising, in spite the danger of simply fueling its fire: “Understanding how these things happen, and how easily joke memes can escape the internet’s seedy underbelly and morph into actual tools of influence, is part of understanding the mechanics of modern politics.”

2023 marks a resurgence—and repurposing—of the term NPC. First, there was a slew of TikTokers embodying the Grand Theft Auto pedestrian archetype: running in place, arms bent robotically at the elbows, repeating the same “pre-programmed” lines against the game’s signature soundtrack. They’d punch things randomly; dramatically overreact if someone walked in the way of their path. The point wasn’t hard to gauge—it was simply to make people laugh.

“Our internet is in the depths of a ‘post-ironic’ era, where the jokes—or, in this case, the earnest content—come not from ‘the source material, but from the undercutting of the source material.’”

But in the past few weeks, a new phase emerged: A handful of TikTok streamers went mega-viral, producing NPC content that puzzled with its sincerity—not exactly a joke, definitely not an insult, and certainly novel to the mainstream. By this point, you’ve likely seen Pinkydoll’s videos, whether or not you’ve gone down her genre’s rabbit hole. She sits in front of the camera, popping popcorn kernels one at a time with a hair straightener, hypnotically reciting a handful of lines that correspond to “stickers” and filters gifted by devoted audience-members. “Ice Cream Cone” only costs one coin, explains Trung Phan on Twitter, which accounts for why Pinkydoll seems to spout its reply (mmm, ice cream so good) disproportionately. If you’re lucky, a viewer might shell out 99 for the “Hat and Mustache,” setting off a, Yes! You got me feeling like a cowgirl!

These gifts translate to non-digital cash—one coin costs, roughly, $0.01. With Pinkydoll garnering tens of millions of views in every go, the trend she made famous stands to become extremely lucrative in the real world.

As to why it works? To some degree, it’s clear that the boom of the new NPC is linked to sex—in particular, a broadly-defined “control” fetish, by which people get off on holding complete authority over someone else. “[The streams are] about treating real-life women as objects with no agency or interiority,” Meredith Deitz characterized one side of the discourse. “Is that potentially dehumanizing for the creator? Sure. But isn’t it dehumanizing to work, like, any corporate job?”

Against the NPC’s right-wing, online-fringes past, it’s more interesting to think about the trend in terms of its political journey. Our internet is in the depths of a “post-ironic” era, where the jokes—or, in this case, the earnest content—come not from “the source material, but from the undercutting of the source material,” writes Andrew McWhinney.

“NPC” the insult undermined real-world worry, about policies that could harm individuals and the earth. The “NPC embodied” by hot girls on TikTok made that projection flesh-and-blood, rendering it totally surreal, skewing its meaning, and maybe, taking away its power as a remotely useful put-down. What once was a conservative rallying cry became something more radical—not a political counterargument, but a shout into the ether, vaguely pulling together the language and symbols of our cultural landscape, rendering it all absurd.

Next to the AI panic, the theft of American women’s rights, and the CEO of Twitter swearing we live in a simulation, the internet rallies around these streamers—distilling a thousand anxieties down to an admittedly calming, mind-numbing, digestible format. We’re desensitized, and obsessed. The threat’s realized, and then contained—hyper-efficient, stupidly simple, and genius in the same breath.